I read this in Word by Word by Kory Stamper.

On that page, it says:

It will become clear to you, in the space between heart beats, why you are having a hard time with this entry: it is because you realise now that you do not in fact actually speak English---that the words you are reading are in some low German dialect and you are no longer certain that they mean anything.

The book is an account of dictionary writing by a lexicographer, which might clarify the meaning of "entry".

But I want to ask: does it mean that you are so obsessed with writing an entry that you forget the language you speak? And most important of all, how does it relate to the sentence after hyphen?


2 Answers 2


The meaning is that writing a dictionary entry is so hard that you might feel that you are not a native speaker. Maybe "I thought I knew English, but I've been trying to write the entry for 'air' for example, for so long, staring and staring at my work, that it starts to seem like they're not even English, but rather some strange language that I don't understand.

Yes, you could say "obsessing". Not that you forget that you speak English, exactly, but that English seems like something else. Almost the same thing, but not quite.

The dash represents some language that has been left out. Perhaps:

it is because you realise now that you do not in fact actually speak English [; and furthermore,] that the words you are reading are in some low German dialect ....


The author of this book ("Word by Word") is a professional lexicographer (somebody who writes dictionary definitions, also called "entries".)

She is describing a situation where someone is having trouble writing a particular entry. It suddenly becomes clear that the reason for the difficulty is the complicated origins of the English language in a "low German dialect".

She is being silly and imagining that a person would become confused and doubt their understanding of English words just by being aware of the Germanic roots of those words. Or that just because English evolved out of other languages, it isn't really a separate language.

Of course, just learning information about a language's history wouldn't really cause anyone to stop understanding it. I think the author means this sentence as a sort of joke (a linguistic joke).

  • Yeah - I think you've nailed it with "a linguistic joke". The context alludes to usages like "Double Dutch", "Pardon my French", and "It's all Greek to me" (foreign languages are strange / incomprehensible), but there's a certain amount of etymological truth in the idea of comparing current English with "some low German dialect". Maybe those who suffer from "lexicographer's malaise / linguistic fatigue" really do end up not being sure what language they're working in and/or what if anything the symbols in that language actually mean. Jul 4, 2019 at 12:42

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